Old school hip-hop hearkens back to a time when artistic expression and content trumped marketability for many artists, and labels were willing to promote and widely distribute material that focused on an overall theme of positivity, in spite of adverse conditions.

Artists like KRS-One were among the first to point out police brutality and put down gang violence as “black-on-black crime.” Tupac Shakur released “Keep Ya Head Up” in 1993 to promote respect for women, especially single mothers, and criticize domestic violence. In short, this time in music conveyed a vision of unity against oppression that has been lost amid marketing campaigns and self-indulgent music videos.

I’m an avid collector and unyielding consumer of music from this golden age of the ’90s, and Peanut Butter Wolf is a seminal figure of the genre’s formative years.

His partnership with rap artist Charizma led to a major label contract that would eventually fizzle out due to a lack of creative control. Wolf later went on to start Stones Throw Records, now home to renowned producer and burgeoning sound artist Madlib.

If one takes the time to listen to Stones Throw’s music, it’s immediately clear that their mantra is one of artistic freedom. Styles range from Wolf’s break beats to Dam-Funk‘s psychedelic boogie funk, making for an eclectic selection that’s sure to have something for everyone.

When I heard Stones Throw was showcasing some of their new talent on a nationwide tour, I knew I couldn’t miss an opportunity to sit down with an underground legend. I met up with the San Jose native before his VJ set at the Great American Music Hall to pick his brain over drinks.

At the show, Dam-Funk’s set had everyone rubbernecking toward the DJ booth trying to figure out where the singing was coming from. As it turns out, the man can wail beautifully. Wolf’s VJ set got people grooving to a healthy mix ranging from Brenton Wood to Lords of the Underground, hitting every point in between. Using computer software and a set of digitally-coded records, Wolf mixed music videos over one another seamlessly. When he’d play a given break, the corresponding part of the music video would appear on screen.

There were also great live sets from James Pants and Mayer Hawthorne, two up-and-coming artists from the label. Their styles complement one another nicely; James Pants’s music is neo-punk with select classic and progressive rock influences, while Mayer Hawthorne is a contemporary interpretation of Motown and other soul/R&B vibes.

Here are some highlights from what Wolf had to say, with photos after the break.

So how did you get into DJing videos?

I just started collecting music videos as they became available, and most of the stuff I liked didn’t get a lot of play on MTV. I love all music, so in a given set I’ll spin any number of things, rare stuff. Soul, funk, really whatever fits together. I try not to stick to any given era, either.

Peanut Butter Wolf on the wheels of steel. Photos by Sean Brennan.
Peanut Butter Wolf on the wheels of steel. Photos by Sean Brennan.

How has the craft of mixing videos developed since you started?

Some guys really get into scratching and remixing tracks to one another. I do a little bit of that, but I kinda like to present the videos the way they were made. I’ll layer parts over one another while I’m transitioning, though the big thing for me is highlighting congruities between musical styles and making different time periods mesh together. Like mixing on beat and key where it makes sense.

I heard you started Stones Throw with a loan from your dad. Is that right?

Actually, that was my first label. My dad loaned me five hundred bucks in 1990 to start PMR (Poetical Movement Records), but it flopped after we pressed about 500 records.

The label was something I wanted to do since I was young, like 15 or 16, but it was kind of in the background once I started working with Charizma. When we were together, I was more focused on the creative process.

We signed with Disney, but that went south. Sadly, as you know Charizma was killed a while later. I became less interested in putting out my own music. Coming back from that, I had new ideas about where to go with the label.

How big is the label, in terms of staff and artists?

We have about 13 employees and about that many artists. A few of the artists don’t actively release material, we re-press and distribute some stuff that’s out of print.

What I really like about having the label is being able to promote what I like, without having to answer to a suit about content or mass appeal. Starting out, the most important thing was finding distributors who believed in us. Those are the guys who really made the label happen. We had a few firms that would just press our records on the front. That gave us the capital we needed in order to grow steadily.

A peek at Wolf's VJ set
A peek at Wolf's VJ set

How did you meet Madlib and J. Rocc?

I met Madlib while I was scouting for another label. I heard Lootpack on a college radio station, I think it was Lady T that played it. I got in touch with her and called the number on the label. It was Otis Sr. (Madlib’s dad), and I set up a meeting with all the members of Lootpack. I arranged the meeting with intent of getting them on the label I was working for, as well as working with them on Stones Throw. I met Otis, and we hit it off right away, just kept in touch from there.
J. Rocc, I think I met while I was putting out my first records on Stones Throw. He really liked our first 12″, My World Premiere. I originally got in touch with him through Qbert, who was giving me addresses and phone numbers of different DJs to help promote Stones Throw. So, I can say J. Rocc was really there from day one.

Omar Rodriguez Lopez (guitarist for Mars Volta) just released a solo album on Stones Throw. How’d you guys put that together?

That’s kind of a roundabout story, actually. I remember I met Cedric (Bixler-Zavala, lead singer for Mars Volta) because I was asked to DJ a Christmas party for Quicksilver and he was the other DJ that night. We both really liked what the other was playing, so we started sending stuff back and forth.

I actually met Omar when those guys curated All Tomorrows Parties. A while later he called me and said he wanted to release an album on Stones Throw, because all his favorite artists are on the label. The whole thing was done, right down to the artwork. I was thrilled. I remember asking him what the terms were. He just said, “None, put it out.” The fact that we’re on their radar is really flattering.

What’s going on with Dam-Funk’s album, Toeachizown?

I think it’s gonna have to be a five-disc box set [laughs]. Really, everything he’s made so far is phenomenal. It’s been hard, but we’ve narrowed it down to about two hours of material. Just know that whatever he comes up with will be incredible.

Dam-Funk operating his time machine.
Dam-Funk operating his time machine.

The record industry has changed a lot in the past decade. How has Stones Throw coped with the closure of retail music stores and the resultant decline in unit sales?

We’re doing okay. Right now our online store is keeping us afloat. It’s not our main thing yet, but it supplements our income while people get used to buying music in that format.

Yeah, the site is great. Intuitive, minimal design.

Exactly, that’s all Jeff (Jank). He’s a genius, designed it pretty much on his own. He had help with the programming aspect of the site, but the layout was all his work. A real creative guy.

So, even though most of the big music retailers have taken a dive, there’s been an outpouring of small businesses that cater specifically to people who prefer vinyl. With artists like Madlib and J. Rocc helming the collector and selector movement, what’s it like to know your label is at least partially responsible for this phenomena?

Never saw it coming. If you ask me, it means there’s hope for civilization [laughs]. But seriously, the entire reggae culture is based on the 45. It’s great to know vinyl is alive and well.

What’s the appeal?

Well, the format is inherently tangible. Having the artwork that big is key, besides being able to actually hold and feel a physical component of the music.

I think for a lot of kids, buying music, especially vinyl, is something that’s old-fashioned. Some people look at it like something their parents did, so it’s uncool. They’d prefer the ease of just downloading it and playing it off their computer.

Dam again, digging this time.
Dam-Funk again, digging this time.